Fighting the Flu with Labour Laws: The Case for Paid Sick Days
In the midst of a busy flu season, the smooth functioning of the healthcare system is critical to the protection of population health, especially vulnerable groups such as the elderly, pregnant women and children.
At the beginning of 2017, there were a number of news reports detailing overcrowded emergency departments. This overcrowding has resulted in spirited discussions about how to resolve a systemic health system problem.
In Ontario, hundreds of health providers have been calling for one particular, proven strategy to prevent the spread and worsening of acute illnesses: paid sick days.
A study by the Public Health Agency of Canada reports that when people cannot afford to take time off, they continue to show up to their jobs, even in high-risk settings such as food services or childcare environments.
Situations like these fuel the threat of public health outbreaks that compromise public health and put greater burdens on the healthcare system.
Paid sick days are associated with reduced emergency room visits, as people can seek appropriate care at early stages in their illnesses, rather than rush to the hospital when they reach a crisis point.
Paid sick days may help prevent high rates of long-term absenteeism that result from working while sick. Workers with paid sick leave are more likely to get vaccinated against the flu; conversely, those without paid sick days are more likely to get the flu during outbreaks.
Unfortunately, approximately 1.6 million Ontario workers aren’t entitled to even one job-protected sick day, never mind a sick day with pay.
When employees are empowered to take time to heal from sickness, productivity in the workplace is maintained by protecting other staff members from contagions and reducing overall workplace infections.
Sick employees tend to be less productive and represent a transmission risk. Without the option of paid sick leave, a culture of “presentee-ism” can emerge, in which employees feel pressured to work even when not at their best. This, in turn, can fuel the transmission of illness and encourage employees to return to work before they’re fully recovered.
Paid sick days have benefits for employers as well: paid sick day policies are linked to decreased employee turnover and improved business productivity.
Without legislated paid sick days, too many workers are forced to go to work while ill, for fear of losing income—or worse yet—losing their jobs.
Legislated paid sick days can address this public health threat directly. With final recommendations from the Changing Workplaces Review expected soon, we could see improvements to Ontario’s labour laws for the first time in decades. Recommending legislation for paid sick days within that review is the first step to protecting workers and improve health.
One of the Canada’s most treasured values is our public investment in, and commitment to, an accessible health care system. Ontario policy-makers must recognize that “politics is medicine on a larger scale,” and introduce labour legislation that ensures the well-being of workers and our health systems.
Health, labour and the economy are deeply interrelated. To ensure that these crucial systems function at their highest capacity, people must be able to rest, heal and restore themselves without fear of expulsion or penalization from their employers.
Anne Rucchetto, MPH, is a public health researcher at the Upstream Lab, Centre for Urban Health Solutions, St. Michael’s Hospital. Kate Hayman is an Emergency Physician and Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto. Ms. Rucchetto and Dr. Hayman are both steering committee members of the Decent Work and Health Network.